This Scorpion doesn't yell out, "Get over here!" But Judge Geoffrey Miller likes her anyway.
"What a vengeful bitch…"—Some dude five seconds before he's killed by the Scorpion
The Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion series started out firmly rooted in the "women in prison" sub-genre, but by this third entry, Beast Stable, it had evolved into something else entirely. Driven by the alluring and enigmatic Meiko Kaji in her defining role, Beast Stable is a dizzying collage of innovative filmmaking filled to the brim with shocking visuals, all just barely held together by Kaji's singular presence.
Facts of the Case
Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) is an escaped convict on the run, a woman so fierce and dangerous that she's known as the Scorpion. After a run-in with the cops that almost ends in her capture, she decides to lay low in the slums. It's there that she meets Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), a prostitute who's also taking care of (and having an incestuous relationship with) her mentally disabled brother. Before she knows it, Nami is caught up in a seedy world of crime, as the cops continue to close in on her.
Beast Stable may be the third entry in the Scorpion series, but it will take all of two minutes for newcomers to catch up. Nami Matsushima, the Scorpion, sits on a subway train; two detectives approach and try to apprehend her. Taking out a knife, she fights back, fleeing towards the doors to escape. As the train doors close shut behind her, a detective's arm grabs out and cuffs her. In a brutal act of desperation, she chops off his arm with her knife. Cue "Urami Bushi," her smoky, jazzy theme song that so captivated Quentin Tarantino he used it on the soundtrack of Kill Bill: Volume 2, as she runs into the crowded street with the severed arm still cuffed to her hand.
After that thrilling introduction, the focus switches to Yuki, a downtrodden prostitute. She's lying in a park after finishing with a john when she spies Nami, who's hiding behind some bushes, gnawing on the severed arm. Yuki brings Nami back to her place to rest; Yuki's brother, brain-damaged and mentally unstable after an accident, tries to rape Nami. "Don't I always give you all the sex you want?" Nami screams to her brother, revealing their horrible secret.
>From then on, it just keeps getting stranger. Nami receives the unwanted attention of a pimp, whose girlfriend kills him after finding out. This draws the ire of the female head of a gang that runs the city's prostitution ring, who seeks retribution from Nami for indirectly causing the death of one of her best employees. Nami is captured, tortured, and thrown in a cage filled with crows, but escapes to take revenge on the gang for forcing a pregnant hooker to have an abortion. Meanwhile, the one-armed detective is back and obsessed with tracking Nami down.
If you find that entire spiel a bit difficult to follow, then you understand Beast Stable's main flaw. It's more a string of good ideas than a movie. The only real thread connecting all the various scenes is Nami and her ability to come out of any situation unscathed. It allows for some fascinating experimentation, but the hanging plot threads are frustrating. The biggest disappointment is the story of Yuki, whose desperation is movingly palpable, but is never resolved.
Shunya Ito, who made his directorial debut with the first Scorpion and immediately followed up with two sequels (this film and Jailhouse 41), brings a restless energy and zest for avant-garde visuals. In a scene set in a nightclub, he uses rapid-fire jump cuts to emphasize the sweaty, manic energy. When Nami kills an abortion doctor, the screen fades to sterile, hospital white, splattered crimson with blood; the final shot is of Nami's face, turned into a distorted mosaic behind a pane of glass. Ito also pays tribute to Kurosawa with a sly nod to Yojimbo: A dog picks up the detective's discarded, severed arm in his mouth and runs down the street.
Whether or not the subtext was intentional, it's impossible to watch a film like Beast Stable without examining what it says about gender roles. Meiko Kaji's career was built around the juxtaposition of her looks—with her slight frame and slender figure she's an ideal Japanese beauty—and her tough girl attitude, driven home by a hardened stare that will make any man's blood run cold. Nami is the perfect part for her; the character's terse nature allows her the chance to say so much more with a simple glance. The archetype Kaji defines here is so powerful that it's still a pervasive force in Japanese cinema and beyond.
The picture is sharp and free of defects. It's decidedly above average for an older cult film and is almost perfect except for being a tad on the dark side. Audio is only Japanese mono, but is clean and clear. Besides trailers and an image gallery, there are no extras. I would have really liked to see some interviews, especially with Kaji and Ito, or some other insight into the movie (and entire series).
Beast Stable is a fine example of Japanese cinema's ability to bridge the gap between the art house and the grind house. There's no doubt that countless filmmakers, both in Japan and abroad, have been influenced by Shunya Ito's unique blend of high and low culture. That it is disjointed, bordering on plotless, isn't a fatal flaw when filmmaking as engrossing and original as this is on display. Like the best of Tarantino or Miike, it's oozing with a sort of edgy cool that's addictive.
Not guilty, unlike the Scorpion.
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